Small co-op makes Fairtrade fashionable

Fairtrade Fortnight started on March 6th. It's organised by the Fairtrade Foundation, which was set up in 1992 to further a cause which has gathered momentum in recent...

Fairtrade Fortnight started on March 6th. It's organised by the Fairtrade Foundation, which was set up in 1992 to further a cause which has gathered momentum in recent years.

But long before that, one woman was doing her bit to try to ensure a better deal for communities in the developing world. Carolyn Whitwell is one of the driving forces behind the Bishopston Trading Company, which specialises in selling Fairtrade clothes in the UK, while at the same time helping a poor community in southern India.

This workers' co-operative was set up in 1985 to create employment in the village of K.V.Kuppam, a long-established centre for cotton handloom weaving. The joint initiative grew out of a twinning link established between the Bishopston area of Bristol and the village of K.V.Kuppam, in the Tamil Nadu state, south India.

It started off with just a handful of workers but now the K.V.Kuppam Tailoring Societies employ 213 tailors, cutters and hand-finishers to turn the cotton into clothes, bags and many other Fairtrade products. Secure The tailors are paid above average wages, but more importantly are provided with full and secure employment all year round.

Members also have a provident fund, retirement gratuity and health care. Carolyn's involvement in aiding less affluent parts of the globe goes back a long way to her student days.

"In the early 1960s I did Voluntary Service Overseas teaching near Bengal.On returning to England, I trained to be a nurse, raised a family and had three children.

"Some years later I read a letter in the Times saying what a good idea it would be to have links with more places in the developing world. I thought this was an interesting idea and helped bring it about in Bishopston. A few years later we were discussing ways of helping and the villagers told us it's not charity we want, it's work."

Carolyn embarked on a business development course and, fortuitously, had always made her own clothes. She still designs the Bishopston range 20 years on. "Our main product is clothing for women and children. All the samples and patterns are cut in England to ensure that the clothes are suitable for our customers."

The co-op has 36 people working in its five shops in Bristol and the West Country, but Carolyn is the only full-time person. Despite a sound track-record, and the growing popularity of Fairtrade, Carolyn admits it's not always an easy business to be in. "We have recently suffered a decline in sales, and our mail order business has dropped although the wholesale business is growing very well."

Inspired Like any other fashion house, the Bishopston Trading Company changes its range with the seasons. Their autumn/winter range was inspired by Chinese costumes, with lots of reds and peacock blues.

Carolyn says: "We are complimenting these with the gentler shades of smoke, slate, foam and jade. This enables us to have not only a completely fair trade product, but also a sustainable and green one.

"We use azo-free dyes and white is produced with non-chlorine bleach."

Each job in India supports a family of five comfortably and the co-op has a selection of over 50 garments and 70 non-clothing items now carrying the Fairtrade Mark. While Carolyn applauds the arrival of Fairtrade goods into stores like Top Shop and Marks and Spencer, her fear is that some of this involvement may be a bit over-hyped.

"The percentage of Fairtrade goods in mainstream stores is actually tiny, whereas ours is 95 per cent. The clothes are made exclusively to our design by 203 cutters, tailors, hand finishers and craft workers and a further 250 handloom weavers. We have customers throughout the UK and also in Holland, Belgium, Spain and New Zealand

"All profits not used to develop the business are used to benefit the people of K.V.Kuppam through our registered charity, the South Indian Rural Development Trust."

For many years, Carolyn has also devoted most of her spare time to develop the co-op. "A lot of people know about us, mainly by word of mouth, but things are undoubtedly getting tougher. The removal of quotas has opened the gate to places like China, and England is now awash with cheap clothes.

"So in the months and years to come we are going to have to think harder about marketing our business. Luckily, the past 20 years of my life has been about doing this and I find it incredibly rewarding."

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